Thursday, April 7, 2011

Animals on the road

Probably since the invention of the automobile, and certainly since they have been able to exceed the pace of a running man, cars and trucks have posed a hazard to creatures trying to get-by on their own feet.  Even so, I have found that animals are much more nimble than autos, and the SAFEST course of action for a driver, is to maintain their course, and rely upon the animal to get out of the way.  Self-preservation is a strong motivator, the animals are (usually) more maneuverable, it is impossible to predict the animal's actions, and sudden changes by a driver create a hazard to other drivers.

A woman of Apache extraction had this view of auto/animal collisions:  You see, the highway department mows the grass from time-to-time, and rabbits love the new tender growth.  But, they are naturally nocturnal to avoid predators.  So, mother rabbits teach the baby rabbits where to find the tender grass, but to stay away from the roads.  Eventually, the young rabbit gets closer and closer to the road (helping himself to a tender meal), when suddenly there is a noise and a flash of lights in his eyes!  His body unleashes a load of adrenaline, and he runs back to safety thinking 'what was that?'.  But, also noticing that rush of adrenaline was pretty cool.  Pretty soon, he starts hanging-out near the road with other young rabbits, seeking another rush of adrenaline.  But, the rush just isn't as good, so they get closer and closer to the road.  Eventually, they take turns running in front of the cars to get as close as they can, so they can get ever-better "fix" of adrenaline.  Eventually, he gets too close, and doesn't survive the experience.  So, don't feel bad about hitting a rabbit on the road; it's just another junkie rabbit over-dosing.

As a young driver (about 17), I once drove a country road, early in the morning.  This particular day, cotton-tailed rabbits were extraordinarily abundant.  And every few feet, one would run across the road (another rabbit trying to get his fix).  Well, after a while, I decided to 'try' to hit one of the rabbits by swerving the car in the direction they were running.  There were no other cars on the road, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.  After a dozen or more attempts to hit one of the rabbits, I got tired of the game, and resumed driving safely in one lane.  Just then, a rabbit jumped out of the brush...and ran directly into the car.

Once, a couple of friends and I were driving, at night, in Brewster county.  Brewster County is huge, over 6,000 square miles.  And, it is very sparsely populated; about 9,500 people.  At night, the roads become playgrounds for hundreds of animals...but especially deer and rabbits.  We had cut-short a camping trip, and were planning to drive through-the-night to get home.  My brother-in-law was on the floor of the van in a sleeping-bag planning to catch a couple of hours sleep before taking-over as driver.  I was navigating from the passenger-seat.  A jackrabbit ran in front of the van...the driver hit the brakes hard.  Have you ever noticed how nylon has a certain "slippery-ness"?  Well, the above-mentioned sleeping-bag had a woven nylon outer shell.  And poor Lee might as well have been lying on Teflon, as he came sliding forward at a high rate of speed.  The "dog house" (an enclosure over the engine on front-engine, rear-wheel-drive vans) did nothing to slow him, in fact, it acted as a ramp, and he didn't come to a stop until his feet were on the windshield (good thing he wasn't laying with his head facing forward).  We pulled off the road to survey the situation, and get everyone back where they belonged...and quickly learned that life-threatening desperate measures still had not saved the poor rabbit.

If ever there was an animal that could out-maneuver a speeding vehicle, it has to be the Purple Martin.  The Purple Martin is the largest of the North American Swallows.  The feed on insects, and are amazing aerialists.  They can dive and change direction almost faster than the eye can follow.  So, it is no surprise that I gave little (if any) thought to a rather large group of (maybe 30) Purple Martins feasting on a mass of insects buzzing above a highway in Nebraska.  An unfortunately member of this group swooped in front of our car (apparently not wishing to lose a meal to our windshield).  There was a reverberating "bong" as the bird was knocked from the sky by our radio antennae!

There is not necessarily a correlation between an animal's brain size, and their intelligence.  Parrots, for example, are thought by some to have a cognitive ability comparable to a 3-year-old human...and parrots have a very small skull.  But, apparently, there is some significance to the size of the brain relative to the animal's body size.  Take, for example the Guineafowl.  These birds have a large body and very small head.  They mostly eat insects, but have a reputation for killing snakes.  Therefore, they are popular in some farming communities and are frequently allowed to run wild.  One day, while driving down a paved road at about 35mph, I saw a Guineafowl in the road in front of me.  Now surely, a bird capable of killing snakes is smart enough to get out of the way of an on-coming vehicle.  Unfortunately, this bird was what we used-to-call "slow".  It apparently didn't notice the car until it was too late.  Just as I lost sight of it behind the hood of the truck, I saw it raise its head, its eyes as large as an Anime I'm confident that it at least saw what hit him.

On rare occasions, it seems that the animal wins.  Back in the 1980's, Dad was living in California, and driving one of the earlier (small) Toyota Corollas.  He would frequently take weekend trips to Yosemite, or Yellowstone.  On one of his trips, he found himself leaving the park after dark.  As he rounded a corner, he encountered a herd of Bison (Buffalo), standing in the road.  He slammed-on his brakes to stop as-quickly-as-possible, and found himself sliding into a very large bull.  The animal seemingly aware of the car, lifted its hind foot, and the car came to a stop partly underneath (but not touching) the bull.  As if pronouncing some kind of judgement, the Bison forcefully put-his-foot-down...onto the hood of the car.  Then, the entire heard sauntered away.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Road Trip

I'm told that the 1950's and 1960's were the era of the great family road trips.  Station Wagons stuffed to the gunwales with suitcases (and more piled on-top) allowed families to tour America, stopping at road-side venues for entertainment, meals, or just to see what was there.

As a child, I remember our family piling into the car with a focus on 'getting there'.  I remember bathroom breaks when we stopped for gasoline, and not many other stops.  BTW, in those days, we stopped at "service stations".  They were usually an auto-mechanic's shop with a couple of gas pumps.  Restrooms were "around back", and usually just as greasy as the bays where repairs were performed.  Mom's admonishment of "don't touch anything" carried an entirely different connotation than usual.

But, in the spring of 1987, Carol and I decided to plan a traditional road trip.  Dad was in San Diego, we had a reliable car (the first-ever "brand new" car for us), and we had managed to save a little money.  So, we carefully planned the major stops we wanted to make, and built-in enough extra time to allow us to make unplanned stops for something interesting.

In January, Carol had been the unwitting victim of an uninsured driver's failed attempt to outrun a traffic light.  She was still experiencing quite a bit of back pain, and we needed to be extra flexible insofar as our schedule.  As it turned-out, we gave ourselves too much extra time and arrived almost a day early.

The major stops on the way to California were Carlsbad Caverns, Fort Lowell, Saguaro National Monument, and Yuma Territorial Prison.  For the trip back, the planned stops were: Quartzsite Arizona, The Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, and Palo Duro Canyon.

Carlsbad Caverns were fun.  Because of Carol's back, we avoided the long hike by riding the elevator.  Shaun was quite small, and didn't realize the elevator had gone down from ground-level.  This led to some remarkable questions.  The first was "where are the windows?", which I answered.  The second question was even more astute; "what's holding up the roof?".  He didn't seem to be afraid, or particularly concerned.  It was a very practical question, asked in a very calm manner.  I laughed out-loud as I once-again realized what a wonderful gift it is to be able to observe children.  Each new experience must somehow be added to their small  framework of experiences.  And, new experiences which vary significantly from past ones generate delightful questions.  We took a LOT of photographs, primarily without flash, using long exposures and the permanent lighting.

Our road Atlas, at that time, had a space marked in Tucson for something like 'historic Fort Lowell'.  Well, the idea of visiting the remains of an actual 'old west' fort was too much of a temptation.  I successfully found "Fort Lowell rd", and assumed that the fort must be somewhere along that road (it certainly sounded reasonable).  I further assumed that there would be something like historical markers to lead one to the fort.  But, after driving along the road for several miles, I began to distrust my assumptions.  Following Carol's advice, I stopped at a convenience store, hoping to get confirmation or directions.  Much to my surprise, the attendants there were completely unaware of any "fort" in or near Tucson.  And, they had no idea why the road was named 'Fort Lowell'.  So, I continued 'following my nose', and found 'Fort Lowell Park' at the very eastern end of Fort Lowell rd.   The park was a sports complex.  But, we noticed a covered, fenced-in, area apart from the other facilities.  There, we found the remains of an adobe wall, with a sign telling the history of the fort.  We didn't stay too long.

The Saguaro National Park was unlike anything I had seen up to that point in my life.  The Saguaro lives naturally only in the Sonora desert (despite what I saw in all those western movies), and don't grow their first 'arm' until 50 to 100 years of age.  And, the adults are HUGE, reaching 50 feet in height and 6 tons in weight.  Unfortunately, they are not as picturesque up-close as I had imagined.  It seems that a variety of birds excavate cavities in the plant to use as nests.  And, while that is natural, it does detract from the beauty of these giants.  We spent an hour or so doing some creative photography.

Where the Saguaro Nat'l Park is loaded with plant life, the area around Yuma was mostly barren except for areas of obvious intense irrigation.  It was about mid-April, and the temperatures were pushing 90-degrees.  And, the sun!  Somehow, I would have expected solar intensity to be fairly constant along a given latitude, but the sun is tougher in Southern Arizona than in North Texas.  The prison is well worth a visit.  But given the heat, I was struck with the thought that the prisoners in the "holes" (used for extra punishment) had it far better than those in the "yard"...and exposed to the sun.

Between Yuma and San Diego is an expanse of HARSH desert.  After the first hour or so, I was struck with thought that San Diego MUST have been discovered by sea.  That desert would surely have discouraged even the most hardy explorers.  We entered San Diego with a combination of dismay and relief.  Relief that we got through the desert ok.  But dismay at being back in a 'big city' after so many days of small towns and open expanses.

Our visit in San Diego was great.  I hadn't seen my Dad in a couple of years, and had never met his soon-to-be wife.  They took us to SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, several different beaches, a couple of missions (more photos), and a number of their favorite places.  Unfortunately, the profuse vegetation around San Diego completely overwhelmed Carol's system, and triggered intense allergic reactions.  Still, she managed to smile most of the time, and had a good time despite her discomfort.

The last week in April, we began our return trip.  After several hours' drive we reached Quartzsite, Arizona.  Due to our interest in gems and minerals, we were aware of Quartzsite Pow Wow, held in January.  And, I assumed (there is that word again), that there would be 'some' permanent facilities...we were really surprised.  As I remember it, we found one gas station, one mobile-home-turned-jewelry-store, and a few other buildings that looked vacant.  BUT, we did see a yard full of rock, and a sign indicating rocks for sale.  The owner emerged from a very small (about 10' x 10') building, and introduced himself as "Grandpa Rocky".  We spent the next couple of hours scouring a yard-full of rocks that must have covered 2-to-3 acres of land.  "Grandpa Rocky" told us the story behind countless rocks and minerals, and many of the treasures he sold us remain in our possession to this day.

From Quartzsite, we made our way toward Prescott Arizona.  The roads are indirect, and follow the shape of the mountains.  The road was probably more suited to a motorcycle (or roller-coaster) than a car.  And our family's ongoing issue with motion-sickness overtook all of us.  By the time we reached Prescott, we were all miserable, and in need of rest.  So we found a hotel and after brief naps, searched for the closest restaurant.  There was a line out the door, so we knew the restaurant had to be good.  The receptionist asked "smoking or non-smoking".  And, upon selecting non-smoking, we were startled to be whisked immediately into a nearly-empty dining area.  This was in the early days of smoke-free dining, but I have never seen such a contrast between smokers standing in-line to be seated, and non-smokers dining almost alone.

When Shaun arose the following morning, his first action was to pull-back the curtains, and proclaim "it snowed!".  I was naturally doubtful, was the last week in April!  But, he was correct.  Our car was resting beneath about 3-inches of snow.  And, snow was still falling.  Sensing that our Grand Canyon visit was in danger, we rapidly packed the car, and headed to Williams...the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon".  At an information center, we asked what advice was being given about the canyon.  She responded with two words: "don't go".

Finding our way to Interstate-40, it was clear that the snow was getting worse.  So, we carefully headed east in an attempt to avoid getting "snowed in" anywhere.  The evergreens were soon covered in snow, and Carol was fascinated with their beauty.  So much so, that she shot about 100 photographs of snow-covered trees.  Remember, this was before the day of digital cameras.  So, a hundred exposures meant the use of four rolls of film.

At Meteor Crater, we entered the doors of the building just-in-time to hear an employee yell; "they just closed the interstate".  We were naturally relieved to have avoided being stranded, and happy to be in a snow-free area.  So, we paid our admission, and spent some time in their exhibits.

Our next planned stop was Palo Duro Canyon.  Carol had spent most of her childhood in Amarillo, and her family had frequently visited Palo Duro Canyon.  To me, it was a new experience.  The descent into the canyon required one to be fully focused on driving.  The descent was fairly steep, there was no shoulder to the road, and turns were sharp.  Once to the canyon floor, we found a place to park and began exploring.  At that time, there was a large erosional 'cave' that fascinated Shaun.  It appeared that rain had found a small hole in a plateau, bored down a dozen feet or so, then egressed horizontally.  Shaun had a great time climbing in, around and through the 'cave', and was soon worn-out.

The remainder of the trip went as-planned and involved little more than driving home.  Our turbo-charged Chrysler Laser, rated at 22mpg city and 25mpg highway, had averaged over 36mpg for the trip.  Individual tanks of gas had exceeded 40 mpg.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Put your shoes on, you look like a bunch of hillbillies!

My paternal grandmother was Jeanette (Willie) McCarty.  Her married names were Abbott (when married to my biological grandfather), and Wilkins (when married to my Dad's step-father).  And, it is sad to say that it took me many years to learn to like her.

The title of this entry is a quote from her, in truth, my earliest memory of anything she said.  My Dad enjoyed 'going barefoot' around the house (and sometimes outside the house).  And, like most small boys, my brother and I followed his example...only we were pretty likely to go barefoot outside the house as well.  And, to be scolded for doing as we had always done seemed really "mean" (to a child probably around the age of six).

"Memaw" as she was known to my east coast cousins had left school after the third grade.  She was married at the age of 12, and had endured six pregnancies by the age of 21.  The first three children were stillborn or miscarried.  The last three were born healthy, and (obviously) include my Dad.  Family lore holds that she divorced her first husband for adultery shortly after the youngest son was born.  So, around 1936 ,she was a single mother, in the middle of the 'great depression', before 'single mother' was really part of the American vocabulary.

She worked in a factory making commercial ovens.  This required regular heavy lifting, and although she was very slender, she was also very strong.  But, as a single mother, she couldn't afford very much for her children.  I remember once, going with my Dad to visit the "old neighborhood".  He had contacted a friend from school, and we drove to their home for a visit.  I was probably around 10, but the visit made a huge impression on me.  As best I could tell, Dad's school-friend lived in the only building on the entire street that was still inhabited.  There were no cars, bicycles, or children in front of any of the row-houses on the street.  In Dad's youth, it must surely have been different, but in my mind, it was right out of the "Twilight Zone".  I remember thinking we should be gone before nightfall...and seem to have had some thoughts about zombies.

Before too long, she married Alec (Alexander?) Wilkins.  As a child, I thought of him as a very kind, gentle, and friendly person.  At the time, I was oblivious of the fact that he had suffered a significant stroke and had a drinking-problem.  Sure, he took me into the local bar/pub with him, but what did I care what he was drinking, I got a soda and a grilled-cheese sandwich!

Dad's step-dad readily admitted to having had a bad temper in his younger days (something my Dad confirmed with some of his personal experiences as a child), but he was always kind to me and seemed to REALLY regret his behavior.  But together, he and my grandmother had raised three very solid members of society.

Living some 1400 miles apart, it was not unusual for several years to elapse between visits "back east".  And, each time, I found my attitude toward my grandmother softening.  Her tone was still harsh, but I began to notice subtle things that gave-her-away.  She never stopped criticizing our shoe-less-ness, but I remember noticing that when she said it, there was a slight smirk on her face as she turned-away.  And I slowly came to realize that what I had interpreted as disgust at us being uncivilized, was more like a special game that she played with our family only.

Sometime in my teens, our arrival for one of our visits happened just a matter of days after a major altercation between Dad's parents.  As I understood the story, Alec had returned home late, very intoxicated, and tracked mud or dirt into the house that had just been vacuumed.  My grandmother used the metal tube of the vacuum-cleaner (some call this the "wand) as a club, and bludgeoned him up the stairs to his bedroom.  The following morning, he had come downstairs while she was cooking, with no memory of the beating, and commenting that he must have fallen sometime in the previous evening.  Her angry heart melted, and she remembered how much she loved him. 

Upon hearing my grandmother relate the story of the vacuum-cleaner beating, I began to realize just how deeply she cared for people.  It was rarely evident in her words, but was shown in what she did.  Her life had made her emotionally hard and mentally strong.  I suspect I've never met a tougher woman.  She was a survivor who was highly focused on assuring that her family survived.  Within the framework of Maslow's hierarchy, her life was completely focused on the "deficiency needs", especially physical and security needs.

Dad always said she was a "special lady".  I wish it hadn't taken me so long to see that he was right.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Hider

Our second son, Daniel, at about the age of 3 took great delight in hiding, or escaping, from his parents at every opportunity.  We don't remember when this began, but can only assume that one harmless, non-event made some kind of impression upon him as being entertaining.  For a time, we could stop, or find, him by the cackles of merriment as he made his escape, or tried to hide.  But then, he got wise to the weakness in his behavior.

One day, we were in a clothing store.  As I remember it, we were shopping for coats for the boys.  We let-go of Daniel in order to determine the appropriate size for his brother.  Moments later, he was gone.  We heard no warning-giggle, nor any laughter of self-satisfaction...just silence.  We had people watch the door, as we went fixture-by-fixture through all of the displays, searching for the little sneak.  We found him in a circular rack of jackets.  The height of the fixture, and length of the jacket arms, gave him complete heat-to-foot coverage.  And, the open 'middle' of the fixture allowed him a comfortable space.  As usual, he laughed almost uncontrollably upon being caught...we left immediately.

Grocery shopping was another experience altogether.  Sitting in the buggy-seat resulted in loud and prolonged protests from Daniel.  We experimented with our own version of a child-leash.  But that was years before they were commercially available, and we received intense criticism from many onlookers.  So, we held hands...until that critical moment, when it was necessary to release him to get something from a high shelf, freezer box, or other awkward display.  Then, when we turned around to reach for him...he was gone.  His strategy in a grocery store was to run out the front-door as quickly as possible.  It got so bad that one store would announce "Daniel is in the building", as soon as we entered the store.  No joke!  They really did!

Ultimately, he matured enough that we were able to reason with him and have him understand the risks of his entertainment.

The Climber

Almost immediately after Shaun could walk, he started to climb.  We've never formulated a convincing theory as to why he had this fascination.

Our first house had a chain-link (aka cyclone) type fence.  And, we had two large dogs who lived in the yard.  One fine spring day, we had the back-door open and Shaun was free to walk in-or-out of the house as he wished.  He was not yet able to talk, but was pretty independent. 

Our story of events this particular day is based upon a logical reconstruction.  At one point, he apparently decided to climb the fence, which we had never-before seen him do.  As his hands reached the top of the 4ft fence, our male dog decided that he needed to take action, and grabbed Shaun by the seat of his pants.  At this point, Shaun got upset and began yelling.  His mother reached the door just about the time that he released his grip on the top of the fence, and landed, unceremoniously, upon his rump.  He continued yelling, and began swatting at the dog...unhurt, but angry.  To this day, we give those dogs credit for helping to raise our boys.

That same spring, we met for lunch at the Fort Worth Water Gardens.  We recommend visiting the water gardens, as they are quite attractive and unusual.  One feature is repeated use of terracing in the concrete-work...both downward into the pools, and upward into surrounding walls.  As his mother and I were talking, Shaun decided to climb the wall behind us.  He was quick, and soon was almost out-of-reach, but I caught him.  But, it was necessary for me to climb part-way up the wall myself.  To this day, I marvel at how he was able to climb a terrace with steps only about 4-inches wide, with about 16-inches of vertical rise between steps.  Thankfully, we both returned safely to ground-level.

Apparently, climbing was some kind of developmental phase for him, as he soon lost his fascination with heights.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

First Born

Despite our best efforts, we as individuals cannot truly understand what another person experiences.  This is especially true between men and women.  Despite science and study, a man cannot really understand what a women experiences as her body goes through multiple stages.  Frankly, we have no point-of-reference.  That is, we have nothing with which to compare certain processes.  By far the most extreme is pregnancy.  Not just child-birth, but the entire process.

Carol's "cycle" had always been unpredictable.  And, her Gynecologist had suggested that she would probably be unable to have children.  So, it was quite a shock to us to learn that not only was she pregnant, but that she was four month's pregnant!

Always a planner, I was shocked to learn that I had less than 5 months to prepare for an event previously thought impossible.  So, while I was frantically trying to find ways to save money, learn something about what was needed, locate and purchase appropriate accoutrements, attend the hospital's mandatory training, etc, etc, Carol calmly proclaimed "it will be OK".

In truth, I was probably preoccupied with all the related "stuff" because they were things I could understand and deal-with.  Sure, I felt the baby 'kick', but it remained difficult to comprehend an abstract concept to which I could not relate.

February 7th, before the alarm sounded; Carol's "water broke".  Over the next 12 hours or-so, I learned that I was very afraid of the entire birth process.  First, they had to "induce" labor.  The, when she was fully dilated,  The Dr. tried to use forceps to grasp the baby by the head, and pull him out.  Having met several people who had been physically or mentally damaged by forceps delivery, this really scared me.  When that didn't work, I was chased from the delivery-room, and they began preparing for an emergency Caesarean Section.

My mother's heart stopped during a C-Section delivery of my youngest brother.  At the time of my brother's birth, of course, I was completely ignorant of this fact.  And, of course, my mother survived.  However, during the course of life, I had become aware of this close-call.  And frankly, having my wife undergo the same procedure scared me beyond belief.

I don't really know how much time elapsed.  But, I completed several self-guided foot-tours of the hospital before I had worked-off most of the adrenaline.  Some friends dropped-in to visit and see how things were going.  Seeing my nervous state, one offered a cigarette.  I've never been a smoker, but apparently smoking serves to calm their nerves.  Eventually, I was called to meet my son.

Through all of the preparation, worry, nerves, etc, I had been focused on Carol.  To her, the baby was very real and something to which she had bonded, both physically and emotionally.  And, I understood what was happening physiologically.  But the "realness" of the baby was beyond my grasp...until I saw his face.

Shaun was bundled tightly, as is the norm in a hospital.  He was very awake, and his left fist was nestled under his chin.  He had the appearance of someone in a foreign circumstance intently trying to observe and understand everything around him.  He seemed aware and suspicious, yet calm.  I was immediately captivated.  The nurse later told us that she should not have allowed me to keep him as long as she did.  But, she could tell that this was a very important moment for me.

Sometime later, as Carol began to emerge from the anesthesia, I was able to introduce Shaun to her.  In stereotypical fashion, she began counting fingers, and making sure he was "all there".

To any soon-to-be fathers who may read this, I can offer no advice, only this warning: a baby will change your life more than you can begin to imagine.

Hunting Hazards

My Dad was not a hunter.  But around the age of 15, a friend introduced me to this outdoor activity.  And, while any rational person can easily identify the hazards of the business-end of a shot-gun, I found that to be the least of my worries.

Shotgun Swimming

One year a new lake was opened to hunting.  The first thing you need to know about lakes in Texas is that none of them are natural.  Here, the Corps of Engineers, or another agency, builds a dam in a river to create a 'reservoir'.  Old creek-beds, dead trees, etc are left largely untouched as the water level rises to flood pastureland, farmland, etc.

An old hunting-buddy of mine suggested that we checkout a new lake.  He had done some scouting, and had an idea of where to setup.  As the sun arose, we could generally discern where the old creek-bed lay...due to the way the trees were arranged...still standing where they were drowned.  During the morning, we were visited by several pairs of Wood Ducks...but not many other species.  The Wood Duck is a beautiful creature, but due to the way in which waterfowl were managed that year, we were allowed to only harvest one per hunter.  Mine fell on the 'other side' of the flooded creek.  And, no matter what I did, it was not going to float to our side of the creek.

After a couple of hours had passed, and we were certain the ducks were finished flying for the day, I started hiking upstream of the creek to find a place to cross.  Then, worked my way back down the other side of the creek to the fallen duck.  By this time, I was pretty confident that I could judge the channel by the trees.  Then, suddenly, there was no ground beneath my foot.  When walking in waders, through water above the waist, it is REALLY hard to stop, change direction, or otherwise do anything but continue forward.  Realizing the water was too deep, I quickly kicked-out with the one foot remaining on ground.  My objective was to reach a nearby tree...which would allow me time to think of a new plan that did not involve drowning.  Rubber waders are very interesting.  As a result of my kick, I was going toward the desired destination, and had the impression that I was actually floating.  For a brief moment, I thought I might not get wet.  Then floop, the water reached the top of the waders and I began sinking...quickly.  Thankfully, I was able to reach a limb of the dead tree, and grabbed-hold for all I was worth.

So, here I am; one hand clutching my shotgun, the other clinging to my life-saving tree, no ground within reach of my feet.  Time for a plan!  I firmly planted both feet against the life-saving tree, and kicked-off in the last-known direction of firm ground.  I was on the swim-team in high-school, and was a very strong swimmer at the time of this event.  So, using my most determined swim-kick, and paddling with one hand, while holding the shotgun out of the water, I made it to solid ground.  And yes, I actually did recover the duck.

Fire Ants

Another Texas peculiarity is Fire Ants.  They are not unique, or native, to Texas, but they have become so pervasive that we accept their existence as an unchangeable fact.  Their bite/sting combination is painful and potentially dangerous to many with allergies.  And, they have proven impossible to eradicate.  Every year or so, a new poison or bait comes-to-market to control the critters...but they are survivors.

One year, we experienced far heavier-than-usual autumn rains.  The lakes went from being well below 'normal' to overflowing.  During the summer months the fire ants had built many nests in the new real estate exposed by the low water.  And, when those nests flooded, we learned something new about fire ants...they float.  They grasp each other and form a floating raft of their own bodies.  Some of the rafts were over a foot across, and over six inches tall, generally conical, and just floating on the waves.

When walking in waders across a shallow inlet long before sunrise, one does not necessarily have the ability to see the floating cones of pain.  And, so it was that I apparently walked into a large floating nest.  It was in November, and I was dressed for cooler weather: thermal-pants, jeans, a light shirt, a sweatshirt, chest waders, and waterproof coat.  My first hint that something was wrong was when I was bit on the neck.  I pinched the critter off my neck, and quickly realized what must have happened.  Then came the onslaught.  It was as if war had been declared, and I was fighting an invisible enemy in the dark.  One I could not see, or find, until after they had given their best shot.  It got so bad that I seriously considered stripping naked to try to wash them off.  Then, God intervened.  I really brief, very cold, storm came without warning.  There I stood, in waist-deep water, with my back to the wind, shivering in the cold, with no place to go and nothing to do, but wait for all of the misery to end, as I continued to pinch-off the ants  But something curious happened, as the temperature dropped, the ants stopped biting.  And somehow, a silent truce was called.  I had no idea how many ants were left alive, but they weren't biting me.  And, I had no interest in angering them further.  So, the truce continued as the storm abated, and the sun arose.

Later, as I carefully removed my gear...outdoors, one-piece-at-a-time, I was informed that the back of my sweatshirt was COVERED in ants.  Gingerly, I pulled the shirt over my head, being extra-careful to not disturb them any more than absolutely necessary.  I didn't even attempt to shake the ants off the shirt.  I just left it, and them, in weeds there at the lake.  My waders and coat rode home in the bed of the pickup-truck.  And I was so pumped with adrenaline that I didn't even need the heater for the ride home.  My wife told me there were HUNDREDS of bites across my neck and back.  And given the total lack of treatment (it was over two hours before I even took a Benadryl), I credit that brief, cold, storm with saving my life.

Freezing Blind

Other than lakes and rivers, most property in Texas is privately-owned.  And, ranchers/farmers learned long-ago that hunters are willing to pay cash money for exclusive hunting access to their property.  My wife's grandfather called white-tailed deer "glorified billy goats", due to their tendency to destroy his vegetable garden.  But most landowners now see them as "cash cows".  Of course, the landowners also suffer some impact to their property as a result of this arrangement: hunter camp-sites, deer-feeder 'pens', and semi-permanent hunting-blinds.

When our oldest son was 14 or 15, I had to opportunity to join a deer lease near the town of San Saba.  The Texas Hill Country is known for large populations of relatively small deer, lots of natural beauty, and sometimes extreme temperature changes. 

On Friday, Shaun and I arrived after dark and setup camp for a weekend of hunting.  The temperature was in the 60's, and we expected a pleasant weekend of good company, watching wildlife, and hopefully seeing deer.  We arose before sunrise, to a typical November morning temperature in the 40's.  We dressed appropriately, and hiked to the blind...about a quarter-mile walk from camp.  The blind was was larger-than-usual, made primarily of plywood, and easily accommodating two persons.  Shortly after getting settled, it began to rain.  The blind had a good roof, and rain was not an issue.  As the sun rose, the temperature began to plummet.  Within an hour or so, we began seeing the rain freezing to fence-wire.  It was about this time that I noticed that the entire blind was shaking.  The wind was not too bad, and it took some time to discern the cause of the shake...two shivering hunters inside the structure. 

Utilizing my best calm and controlled, 'fatherly', voice, I asked Shaun if he would like to go into town for a warm breakfast.  I don't think he responded verbally.  Instead, he launched from his chair, and was well out the door by the time I finished my offer.  Neither of us realized how much warmth the blind had been providing, just by being dry and out of the wind.  We were completely soaked before we had covered half the distance to the camp.  Ice was forming around the already-wet trees, and I became genuinely concerned about our ability to survive the walk.  But, there was no cover, and no alternative but to continue.  I urged Shaun to walk faster in an attempt to generate heat.

At camp, we changed into dry clothes, and packed the car as quickly as possible.  Within a half-hour we were in the car, and headed off the lease.  But, in that little time, ice had completely encased most of the trees.  There had been no snow or sleet, but the trees encased in ice were quite beautiful.  Breakfast was good, the car warmed quickly, and Shaun slept most of the hours back home.  I made a mental note to check weather reports repeatedly, and not trust a long-term forecast.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Winter in Quartzsite - 2011

In mid-January, 2011 my brother Paul and I took a trip to a winter rock hound paradise...Quartzsite Arizona.  Where is that you ask?  Look for where Interstate 10 crosses the border of California and Arizona.  The little-bitty print about 20 miles east of Blythe California is Quartzsite.  For something like 50 years, snowbirds have been flocking to Quartzsite to escape cold weather.  The winter high temperatures can be quite pleasant.  And, over time, quite a number of events have been organized.   These include RV shows, car shows, swap-meets, and rock shows.  The shows have been so well established at this point, that fossil and mineral dealers from around the world setup and offer their products...primarily in the month of January.

Paul joined me for a shopping trip to restock Crystal Moon Gallery after Christmas 2010.  The shows are huge, outdoor, events that are nearly always dusty (practically all merchandise requires cleaning after purchase).  Paul's first comment about the shows were that they are "an amazing collection of sub-cultures"...and he is right.  One may encounter dreadlocks or deacons, tattoos or turtlenecks, piercings or Porsches, wheelchairs or (power) walkers.

One of the most interesting items we saw offered for sale was a Radium Rejuvenator.  This piece of medical history dated from the 1920s, and consisted of a piece of crockery, somehow lined with Radium, and fitted with a tap.  Glazed in blue was the recommendation that one drink four glasses of rejuvenated water daily.  Water was placed in the device at the top, then dispensed into drinking-glasses.  The owner of this item overheard me comment that I had a Geiger-counter, and asked me to check whether the rejuvenator was radioactive.  His tent was pretty crowded with people as we worked our way to the rejuvenator.  And initial check of the outside showed little more than background radiation up to about a foot away from the crockery.  But, even then, it only showed about .1 to .3 mR/hr.  Then, the proprietor lifted the lid, and I poked the business end of the device in the hole...what a noise!  The needle registered something like 9 mR/hr, and I immediately jerked my hand away from the crockery.  After a moment to think about the situation, I looked-up, and found only five people left in the tent: the proprietor and his wife, my brother and I, and one woman who was apparently not paying attention.  It is amusing to me that very few people have actually seen a Geiger counter, but thanks to popular media, we all know what one sounds-like.  I did some research after we got home, and learned that the rejuvenator was a piece of medical fraud that led to many illnesses and deaths.

Paul is very fond of hiking, and discovered a place called "Palm Canyon" in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.  This very narrow canyon is home of (apparently) the only native palms in all of Arizona.  One drives about 20 miles south of Quartzsite, and about 7 miles east of the pavement to a parking-lot.  The canyon network is apparently a collapsed caldera, and is about as rugged as one would expect of an unimproved volcano.  Most people hike as far as the "palms" sign (see first photo above), take photos, and return to their vehicle.  But, the view of the palms is distant:
Those green spots above the shadow are trees!  But, we encountered a group that had hiked to the palms, which inspired us to try it ourselves.  We had great fun following the obvious path up to the palms, scaling rock walls, and enjoying a moderate hike...when we encountered a sheer wall of rock.  The wall likely makes a spectacular waterfall during the rare rains.  But it was completely beyond our ability to climb.  So, we backtracked most of the distance, and found the 'right' route, a narrow slit of a canyon with a floor of loose rocks:
Only those with rather narrow hips can make it through the gaps in the rock!  But, patience and persistence pays off:

Most of the palms show evidence of a significant fire.  I found it curious that the rocks and palms have burn marks, but not the undergrowth.  Which, suggests to me that quite a number of years have passed since the fire:
Many thinks to Paul for including me in this hike.  I highly recommend both the hike and the site...should you ever find yourself in far western Arizona.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Stuff Dad Would Eat

My Dad, though not a world traveler, was very open to other cultures' philosophies, arts, and foods.  And, I think it was this that drove him to introduce us to all kinds of foods not found on the school cafeteria menu.  As adults, my youngest brother loved to tease about Dad mowing the lawn...then serving it for dinner.  This exaggeration is certainly entertaining...and not terribly far from the truth.

Dandelion sprouts in early spring (before the grass), so it makes an ideal candidate for harvesting-by-child.  Basically, Dad could send us children out with various cutting implements (to sever the greens from the root), with really simple instructions, and have high confidence that if we gathered something green, it was edible.  Mom cooked them like mustard greens, and for-the-most-part they were pretty good.  Now naturalists like to promote the benefits of eating of which is here.

Dock is most obvious in North Texas during the winter season.  I'm not a plant specialist, but it seems to die-back as soon as temperatures are consistently above about 80-degrees.  Wikipedia lists these plants as part of the Rumex genus, and I'm not sure what variety grew around our neighborhood, but I still see them occasionally, growing at the side of the road.  They are remarkably large plants, with leaves around a foot long, and 6+ inches wide.  Collecting Dock was usually a one-person job, as one plant can provide all the leaves one can fit into a cooking-pot.  Dock must be par-boiled (boiled until soft, then drained and cooking completed) to remove Oxalic Acid which is natural to the leaves.  The amount of Oxalic Acid is not dangerous, but it can make you pretty sick (which one of my brothers learned when, as an adult, he put fresh Dock through a juicer).

Calf Fries (aka Rocky Mountain Oysters) were a favorite of Dad's.  And, on our periodic trips to Oklahoma to visit Mom's parents, he liked to stop at one particular restaurant for this treat.  One day, Dad ran-into a "great deal" on calf-fries.  He found a meat market that would sell items wholesale, provided you purchased a box-full.  The boxes were waxed cardboard boxes, and I would guess that they held 30 to 40 pounds of meat.  Significantly, meat purchased in this fashion is not prepared for display.  That is to say, stuff goes from the slaughterhouse into the box, without benefit of a butcher.  Each of the testicles (which I assume were from bulls, rather than calves, as they were about six-inches-long) had to be peeled and sliced prior to cooking.  Dad did all of the cleaning (which my brothers and I watched VERY briefly), and packaging for freezer and cooking.  As I remember them, they had all the flavor of a rubber eraser, and were MUCH tougher to chew.

Beef Heart was another of Dad's box-buys.  Like the other boxed meat, it required cleaning/trimming.  This time, I was enlisted to help.  And, I found the cleaning process to be tedious and distasteful.  An attitude exacerbated by my certainty that heart would be as palatable as calf-fries (since I'd never before tasted it).  Hearts have an abundance of connective tissue, and a good deal of fat.  As I remember it, we took the better part of a weekend to complete the cleaning task.  But, unlike Calf Fries, I enjoyed the flavor of Beef Heart, and still occasionally partake of it. 

Calf Liver was something that Dad enjoyed, but his sons hated.  He knew of our dislike, but felt that it was his responsibility as a parent to make certain that we ate things that were 'good for us'.  These meals became a marathon ordeal.  We could not leave the table until our entire serving was consumed.  I'm quite certain that my body classified calf liver as hazardous.  Because, as soon as it hit the back of my throat, by body tried to expel it.  But God-help the poor kid who allowed that reflex to turn into action.  Because Dad was certain that we hurled on-purpose.  Thankfully it only appeared at our table about once a year.  And, to the best of my knowledge, my sons have never tasted liver.

Frog Legs are something that Dad apparently grew-up with. He always maintained that his mother could cook the best frog-legs.  So, on those rare occasions when she came-to-town, Dad would have to go frog-gigging.  I've never actually participated in frog gigging, but it apparently involves beer, a boat, a multi-pronged spear on the end of a stick, a flashlight, and a burlap sack.  I recall the story of one night of frog-gigging.  There were 3 or 4 men in a flat-bottom boat, rowing along the shore scanning the plant-life for the tell-tale glow of eyes.  They were apparently having quite a good night, with a number of frogs in the sack, when one fellow gigged a monster frog.  Just as he got the frog over the boat, it fell-off the gig.  Several of the men lunged to grab the loose frog...tipping the boat, and sinking it.  Eventually, they got the boat on the right side of the water. They had lost their sack-full of frogs.  But there, sitting in the bottom of the boat, was the monster.  As I remember it, he measured 21-inches from nose-to-toes.  People frequently compare frog-legs to chicken.  But, whenever I hear that, I wonder where they get their chicken.  Because frog-legs have a very definite 'fishy' taste. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Travelin' with Dad

In many ways, my Dad, James Abbott, fit many of the stereotypes for a father in the 1960's and 1970's.  We never flew anywhere, but road trips were fairly common.  And, even in a large car, he demonstrated remarkable "Vacation Elbow" (A condition that suddenly develops in a father's arm during a vacation trip that allowed him to reach out and slap you from incredible distances).

When I was quite small, my parents had an early Volkswagen "bug".  Those old cars had a small storage compartment, behind the rear seat, and above the engine.  This was my favorite place for long trips.  This was in the days before seat-belt laws.  And, in truth, before the time when they were standard equipment.  On a trip "back east", we were in the Appalachian mountains, driving through snow.  As I remember it, my mother was very concerned about our safety.  And, while I think Dad was very concerned about the road conditions, and was quite focused on driving, he also was trying to reach a destination.  Suddenly, the bug spun-out and went off the road.  The undercarriage hit a tree stump, and our travel was abruptly stopped.  According to my parents, I was heard to have said "that was fun...but not much".

At one time, Dad had managed to buy a used Jaguar MkII "Saloon".  This car continues to be listed among the "most beautiful cars every made".  And, even today, it is noted for being extremely road worthy.  Dad claimed that the car "loved 90".  That is to say, he had trouble keeping it below 90 mph.  I remember him spending days-on-end working on that car.  I never knew exactly what he was fixing, but I could tell by the volume of parts on the floor that it must have been major.  And, it didn't seem to run for more than a couple weeks at a time before requiring more major work.  At one point, one of his very good friends had been transferred to Arizona.  So, for our vacation, we piled in the car and went to visit.  Somewhere in far-west Texas, we had a wheel bearing go bad.  He stopped at the first "service station" he saw...which was a long way from any town.  And, the mechanic there happened to remember that (a) the Jag used the same wheel bearing as a common American-made car, and (b) that he had one of those among his parts cars in the back.  Together, he and Dad removed a used (presumed to still be usable) bearing from a wrecked car, and installed it on our car.  As far as I can remember, that bearing remained in the car until it was sold.  As I recall, this event happened on a Saturday, not too long before the station was scheduled to close.  For many years, Dad spoke of how fortunate we were to have found that bearing, because there were literally no buildings for miles.

When I was 13 or 14, Dad learned of a ski resort in New Mexico called Sipapu.  It is a smaller resort, well off the-beaten-trail.  It was very inexpensive compared to the famous resorts, and not very crowded.  The draw-back to a small resort, being that the roads may not be as well maintained or cleared as high-traffic areas.  As I remember it, we had a 1966 Oldsmobile station-wagon the year the brake master-cylinder died.  Dad must have had some warning sign that things were getting bad.  When, for no reason that I remember, we headed down the mountain to the nearest town of any size.  This mountain was STEEP.  I don't remember the road name or number.  But, we were probably at the limit of safety most of the trip.  Long before we reached the bottom, the master cylinder had died, and Dad was using the parking-brake.  Riding in a  4,000 behemoth, careening down a snow-covered mountain road will stress anyone.  So, none of us was at our best when we found a town with an auto-parts store, and learned that the only option was to "rebuild" the master-cylinder...outside, in the parking-lot.  As oldest, I was expected to help with this task.  The ambient temperature was around 20ยบ, the wind wasn't terrible, but brake-fluid has this remarkable ability to draw the body-heat out of anything it touches...and my gloves didn't help.  Soon, I was miserable.  I assume that Dad was equally uncomfortable, but stoicism was still in-vogue among fathers.  So after, oh I don't know, 10 or 20 days in the cold, we finished the task.  Naturally, Dad did the greatest part of the is not easy to get two bodies within arm's reach of a master cylinder.  To Dad's credit, the rebuild worked on the first try...and it was back up the mountain for us.

It is funny how we mostly remember the bad things that happen when traveling.  If everything goes as-planned, it just doesn't seem to build the same kind of lasting memories.  So, lest you think that our vacations were all miserable, let me say that most of our travels went pretty-much according to plan.  And some, were even more fun than we expected.  When I was about 19 or 20 (legal drinking age at that time), we traveled with friends to another ski resort.  To our great surprise, we learned of a unique 'restaurant' essentially below the lodge.  The owners basically allowed free-range of the facilities.  There were no menus, and no prices.  You helped-yourself to whatever you wanted, and left whatever donation you felt was appropriate.  The owner was leaving to go cross-country skiing when we arrived, and soon we were the only people in the room.  The younger family members went skiing, and 5 or 6 "adults" were left with gallon jugs of wine, cheese, crackers, and probably some other stuff I don't remember.  For hours, we talked, laughed, sipped wine, ate crackers, and generally enjoyed each others' company.  I remember I was completely surprised at being intoxicated when I arose from the chair.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Motorcycles and Mayhem Part 2

Around about my 18th birthday, I purchased a used Yamaha RD350.  It was a two-stroke, two-cylinder street bike, that was very quick and handled beautifully.  Like most two-strokes, it had a lot of torque in the upper rpm-range.  And, as I remember it, was powerful enough to lift the front wheel in 1st, 2nd, and occasionally 3rd gear.  Yamaha claimed something like 32 maximum horsepower.  And, as I remember it, it only weighed something like 300 lbs.  This bike had the reputation for being second only to the Kawasaki 900 in stretching drive-chains.  Before it was stolen, I logged over 30,000 miles on this bike.  For those who have never ridden something like this, that is a LOT of miles.

The first summer I owned the bike, I was car-pooling with a neighbor to our place of employment.  When weather was threatening, he would drive his car.  On nicer days, we'd take the motorcycle.  At that time, in that state, helmets were required by law.  Having previously tasted pavement, I didn't find that law too limiting.  Our route to work required utilizing a significant thoroughfare; two lanes each direction, with a speed limit of 40 or 45 mph.  We had to turn left across traffic.  Thankfully, there was a turning-lane, but one did not want to even think of slowing down until IN the turn lane (the commuters were very unforgiving about being slowed-down).  This bike had great brakes.  And, unless cars were already stopped in the turn-lane, getting from 40+ mph down to zero, in the space available, was no big deal...until the day I hit the wasp.  Normally, hitting a bug is nothing more than a minor distraction.  But, this wasp managed to find a gap between my face, the hard shell of the helmet, and the pieces of the soft foam liner.  Basically, I had just entered the turn-lane, and had a live (yet dazed) yellow-jacket IN MY EAR.  That helmet had no quick-release mechanism for removal.  No, it required two hands to withdraw the strap through two "D" rings.  So, I let-go of the handlebars, removed the strap from the D-rings, removed, the helmet, set the helmet in my lap, grabbed the wasp with my hand, firmly threw the wasp to the ground, re-grabbed the handlebars, and applied the brakes...all before reaching the stop-light.  As one might expect, my passenger was confused and concerned.

Something I omitted from the previous paragraph was the fact that we were working at Langley Air Force Base, as civilian grounds maintenance.  If I remember correctly, the speed limit on-base was 20 mph.  And, I remember EVERYONE paying close attention to speed limits, and other traffic rules.  I don't remember seeing anyone pulled-over, but it just seemed like natural common-sense to be on your best behavior while on a military base.  So, I was really surprised the morning that several base police-cars passed us (we gave them plenty of room).  And, they were still within sight when the pulled into a parking-lot on the left side of the road.  And, they were directly to my left when they pulled their weapons, and pointed them directly at those of us still in traffic.  Believe me when I say that an event such as that will immediately clean-out any morning cob-webs that may have still been lingering in your brain.  What I did not know, of course, was that an alarm had gone-off at the credit union on base.  And, if I had not been completely fixated on the muzzles of those firearms, I might even have remembered that the credit union was on the right-side of the road.  What I remember being most thankful-for was that traffic was still moving, and I was quickly out of the line-of-fire.  In all honesty, being inside an automobile is not really any safer than being on a motorcycle if bullets are flying.  But I felt very exposed.

The RD350 had amazing handling.  As an exercise in poor judgment, I would periodically try to double the speed limit on roads with a lot of curves.  I remember being followed by a Honda 350 on a road with back-to-back "S" curves, and a speed limit of 35 mph.  I was in excess of 75mph when I exited the second "S".  And I don't really know when the Honda exited that turn.  I kept looking over my shoulder for the next mile-or-so, and never saw him emerge from the trees.  The balance of the RD350 was also impressive.  One day, I was in another "S" type of turn.  And, although I may have been speeding a little, I don't think it was intentional.  Anyway, as I transitioning from turning left to turning right, I hit some kind of automobile fluid; probably oil, maybe antifreeze...but very slippery.  The bike tried to slide out from under me until I put-down my right foot forcefully.  My boot hit the same slippery fluid, and to my great relief and surprise, created a 'tricycle' effect, in that both tires, and my boot slid smoothly across the fluid until reaching dryer pavement.  With only a little screech-and-wobble, and very little lost momentum, we continued on our way.

While in college, I made VERY active use of this motorcycle...but not without perils.  After my Dad was transferred from Virginia to Austin, I would periodically ride home to visit.  I preferred using the farm-to-market roads for this trip for a couple of reasons, (1) the ride is a lot more interesting when compared to flat, straight highways and (2) traffic was quite light, and a light-weight motorcycle is pretty easily blown-around by large vehicles.  The drawback to driving farm-to-market roads is that they are used by farmers and ranchers...and things fall out of their trucks.  A fencing staple (alt. "fence staple") is a sharpened "U" shaped device driven into wooden posts to hold fence wire.  Not surprisingly, they can pierce a rubber tire.  In my case, the rear tire immediately went flat.  So, here I am traveling ~70mph with a flat rear tire which is causing the entire rear end of the motorcycle to "walk" from one side to the other, about a foot to each side of the center-line.  Thanks once again to divine intervention, I was able to stop the motorcycle without getting a close inspection of the ditch on either side of the road.  Within a few minutes, it became clear that this was not going to be a simple repair (a postmortem on the tube revealed a split over a foot-long...well beyond any tube patching technology).  And, to my great relief and surprise, a pickup-truck driver soon drove down that road and stopped to help.  He was also a student, at the same university, and was also returning to campus.  In short time, we had the motorcycle loaded in the pickup bed, and on our way back to school.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Motorcycles and Mayhem Part 1

I have loved motorcycles since I was about 13.  And, I bristle whenever I hear somebody ranting about how dangerous they are.  But, in fairness, many (probably most) of my life-threatening experiences have occurred on a bike.  Some were the direct result of my poor judgment, many were just freak events. 

When I was 15, I purchased a used Kawasaki G4TR "Trail Boss" motorcycle.  This bike was of the "enduro" variety, in that it is street-legal, but designed to be used off-road.  Of particular note was that this bike had a dual-range transmission, much like four-wheel-drive trucks.  With only a 100cc engine (actually 99cc, but marketed as a 100), this was the biggest bike I could legally ride on the road at the age of 15.  A popular (and legal at that time) off-road site near Benbrook Lake included a steep hill.  I would judge the hill to be at about a 40° angle, and about 100 feet 'long' (base to crown).  Most riders would get a running-start in first gear, approaching red-line and drive-hard to the top without shifting.  One day, I decided to try the low-end gears on that hill.  As I remember it, I hit third gear just before the bottom of the hill, and shifted to fourth about ½ way to the top.  I had enough speed at the top that the bike and I launched quite a ways into the air.  We landed in very loose black dirt, and immediately the bike was flat on its side.  Unknown to me, my buddy was close behind me.  So, as I'm standing there, trying to get the bike up-righted, I hear the whine of a 120cc dirt (only) bike being revved beyond its design limits.  I look-up in time to see the bottom of the bike as it tops the hill.  The first thing I noticed was that the bike had legs.  That is to say, the only part of the rider in-contact with the motorcycle was his hands.  "The Rack" could scarcely have stretched him to a greater extent as he desperately clung to the handlebar grips.  And, a critical observation at the time, was the fact that no part of him or the motorcycle was touching the ground.  Further, it seemed that within very brief moments I would be providing a landing cushion for motorcycle and rider.  To my great relief, I found that I misjudged his momentum, as he and the bike came abruptly to the ground, and slid to within an inch of my boot.  We quickly righted both bikes, and pushed them under a local tree before anyone else could crest that hill.

Some months later, we were riding a dirt road along a river.  There were three of us, and the road was deeply rutted from the tires of a truck which had driven the road when it was very wet.  On the ride back, my two 'friends' decided that a little bit of a race was required.  As we careened down the dirt road, I got pushed into one of the ruts, which, once entered, were very difficult to disengage.  The bike went-down, and when forward motion had ceased, I found my left boot pinned between the exhaust and the ground.  Well, it is surprisingly difficult to lift a motorcycle from a sitting position.  And, I found that nothing I did would allow me to extricate my foot.  So, I beeped the horn a few times...there was no response.  Some time later, my 'friends' noticed my absence, and one returned to look for me.  Now, whenever we cross paths, he reminds me of "the day he saved my life".

The Kawasaki probably served me better than I deserved, for what I demanded of it.  One day, I had been working on the bike, and I remember taking it for a test ride along railroad tracks near our house.  I had ridden this particular trail dozens, if not hundreds of times, and was well aware of several large piles of dirt which the path crossed.  In fact, I had used those piles for jumping ramps on many occasions.  On this particular day, I was paying more attention to how the bike sounded and felt, than where I was going.  I remember having my head near my right knee, listening for something, when I looked-up and saw the first pile.  I had been traveling a little too fast, and recognized my mistake immediately.  The bike completely left the ground, and via some mid-air manipulation, I was able to land the bike in a more-or-less straight line.  But, the second pile arose before I could fully recover.  Even so, I was able to land the bike better than I expected.  But, I was completely crooked when I left the third pile, and landed almost perpendicular to my direction of travel.  When I landed, I was immediately thrown from the bike, landing upon the forehead-portion of my helmet, and sliding for some distance with only the helmet touching the ground.  Meanwhile, the motorcycle had left the path in the direction opposite of the railroad tracks.  And, because of my landing, it was spinning horizontally.  Imagine a motorcycle center-line running through the front wheel, engine and rear wheel.  Further, imagine that center-line is an axis about which the motorcycle is spinning.  Well, while all of that was going-on, the bike encountered an old barbed-wire fence, and wrapped itself in several yards of 50+ year-old rusty barbed wire.  The wire cocoon was such that the motorcycle could not even be pushed.  About an hour, and many cuts, later the bike was freed of the wire.  And, although I'm sure I didn't deserve it, it started quite readily and saved me the additional embarrassment of walking home.

I had a particularly bad day the spring after my 16th birthday.  I had been working at a fairly up-scale restaurant as a busboy, dish-washer, kitchen-help, and all-around lowest-person-on-the-totem-pole.  The manager had resigned, and the owner had put the assistant manager in-charge.  The 'new' manager called me (at home) to come see him.  When I arrived, I was one of several people being notified that we were no longer needed.  Now, I won't claim I was the world's best busboy.  Or even the best in this restaurant.  But, I was very aware of who among the servers, cooks, etc, took their jobs seriously.  And, I could see a very strong negative correlation between those being released, and those who sat around the bar and chatted with the former assistant manager.  That is to say, the new manager was keeping his buddies.  I was miffed...maybe even peeved, and I rode home at too high a rate of speed.  At the end of this quite straight road, was a mandatory right-hand turn (enforced by a concrete curb), and ramp onto a major thoroughfare.  I slowed-down, and leaned into the turn.  BUT, somebody had spilled gravel on the roadway.  The tires hit the gravel, and the bike immediately laid-down on the right-side.  The tires hit the curb, and I was thrown across two lanes of traffic.  Forces of Inertia, Leverage, and immovable objects had instantaneously created an extremely effective catapult.  So, I found myself on the pavement, sans motorcycle, in the middle of the thoroughfare, facing what appeared to be a solid wall of automobiles doing everything in their power to stop.  God must have saved me that day, because I made it off the road before the cars reached me.

By-the-way, the restaurant closed about six-weeks later.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Stuff My Dad Did

As I remember my childhood, James Marvin Abbott was very much a do-it-yourself-er.  At least in part, this was due to us never having too much money.  But, I don't remember any money fights, or anything like that.  Just that we did stuff ourselves...which seemed pretty normal to me.

The Roof

When I was around 8 years-old, I tried to help Dad to lay a new shingle roof on our house.  As I recall, I was only able to carry about 2 or 3 shingles at-a-time.  So, in fairness, "help" is probably the wrong word for my contribution to the project.

On one of our trips to the roof, our ladder somehow fell-over, leaving us stranded atop the roof.  Dad was very athletic throughout his life.  So, he barely hesitated before jumping off the one-story dwelling, landing safely upon his feet.  My assumption was that he would stand the ladder back against the house, and I would climb-down.  I was more than a little surprised when he told me to jump.  I suppose it is the same distance, regardless of your height.  But, somehow, it just didn't seem fair for me to have to jump the same distance that he had just jumped.  But, he tried to calm me by assuring me that he would catch me.

This was the greatest height from which I had jumped to-date.  So, I really didn't know what to expect.  And, I sure didn't want him to miss catching me because I didn't jump right.  So, there he stood, with his arms outstretched...and I jumped.  Apparently, I jumped a little too well, as it was necessary for him to back-up to avoid being landed-upon.  I fell neatly between his arms as he sought safety.  My feet hit first....then, my knees hit my chin...then I was all over the ground.  I remember being very upset that Dad had promised he would catch me, then failed in his obligation.  I suppose that his laughter included a little embarrassment at failing to catch me.  But, at the time, it didn't seem right for him to blame me.

The Plow

Dad liked to plant a garden every spring.  Some years, he would rent a motor-driven tiller, most years he would use a shovel to turnover the soil (something I was expected to help-with every day after school until it was done).  One year, he borrowed a plow.  This was the first of these I'd ever seen.  And, it sure didn't look like anything I'd ever seen on the 'western' movies or TV shows.  As an adult, I've seen them at flea-markets, and as best I can tell, it is called a 'high-wheel cultivator'.  And, it apparently is intended to be pushed.  And, I can only assume that they are/were used on soil that had previously been plowed, but needed to be shaped. 

Unfortunately, Dad wanted to use this plow to extend our garden area into previously (as far as we know) unbroken soil...Pushing didn't work.  Soon, I...and a length of rope, were recruited to double the power being applied to the very stubborn soil.  A simple loop, consisting of a manila rope tied at each end to the plow, served as our harness or yoke.  As I remember it, I was the first to serve as the draft animal.  I don't know exactly how old I was, but probably less than ten.  So, I wore-out pretty quickly.  Then Dad did the pulling, but I didn't do a very good job of managing the I was too short.  The plow was not intended to be pulled, and the rope was tied above the wheel axle.  So, it tended to pull-over.  I think my best technique was to 'hang' from handles by my hands, and use my feet to 'steer'.  But, keeping the plow vertical was problematic.  We worked in shifts, alternating from puller to steer-er.  Upon completion, the plow was returned to its owner, and never again suggested.

The BBQ Grill
I don't remember us having a grill at our house until my 8th grade in school.  One of my classes was metal-shop.  And, before the year ended, I brought-home a welded steel cooking grill...just the part the food sits upon.  It was welded of mild steel, mostly strips about one-half inch wide.  We built a fire enclosure of dry-stacked (no mortar) bricks.  The entire unit sat in our back yard about 4-feet from the back of the garage.  And notably, about the same distance from a storage room door when closed.  When fully open, the door was within about 18inches of the BBQ.

At that time, "match light" type of charcoal was not available.  And, we didn't use commercially-made lighter-fluid because of the expense and the fact that we didn't grill that often.  Besides, gasoline was very effective, only about 30¢ a gallon, and always on-hand for the lawn mower.  In Dad's mind, it made far more sense to use gasoline.  Before I get into the details, remember: don't try this at home.

An average, typical day of grilling involved stacking charcoal, pouring gasoline on the stack, standing-back and throwing a lit wooden match at the grill.  The ensuing 'woosh' provided an audible verification of ignition.  However, if one was too generous with the gasoline, the dry-stacked bricks allowed the gas to seep out into the grass.  And, allowed that gas to ignite.  Very soon, there was no longer any grass at-risk, as it had burned-away.

Gasoline is an effective "accelerant" for charcoal about 99% of the time.  But, one day the gasoline burned-out without having any apparent effect on the charcoal.  Our gas was kept in a one-gallon steel can, which Dad was easily able to grasp, and manipulate, one-handed.  He decided the proper course of action was to add more fuel.  Unfortunately, there was at least one live ember in the stack, and fire raced up the flowing gasoline.  With amazingly quick reflexes, and using only his wrist, Dad tossed the potential bomb about 20 or 30 feet.  And, the unwanted fire was fairly easy to extinguish.

Wind can also be an enemy when using gasoline as a charcoal lighter.  One day, we were following our normal routine; take the gas-can from the storage room, stack the charcoal, pour the gasoline, stand back, then throw a lit match.  This particular day, the storage room door did not get closed completely.  And, it was windy.  In a freak bit of bad timing, the door blew open, just as the gasoline went 'whoosh'.  And, the flash of gasoline fire was hot enough and large enough to immediately set the door ablaze.  So, here stand my Dad, my brother and myself watching a blazing, intentional, fire alongside a blazing, unintentional, and potentially catastrophic fire.  Somehow, we got the door extinguished before we lost the house.  Ironically, we never moved the grill.

Scuba Diving

Dad became involved in Scuba-Diving in the early 1960's.  I know his first tank was a conversion.  That is, it was not made as a SCUBA tank, but was converted from another use.  As I remember it, it must have originally been an oxygen tank scavenged from an Oxy-Acetylene welding rig.  He had no 'frame' (or whatever you call the part to which the tank is mounted).  Instead, he had a variety of belts and buckles which reminded me of seat belts.  And, as I recall, it took him quite some time to get all of the parts in-place.

To my knowledge, Dad only had one opportunity to get paid for diving.  A golfer had missed a shot and lost his temper.  He threw his entire set of clubs into the Trinity River.  Apparently, they were an expensive set.  And either he, or his golfing buddy (I think it was the friend) felt it was worth a little money to recover them.  By North Texas standards, it was a fairly chilly day (probably in the 40s).  As a child, I remember being cold, and completely confused as to why Dad would willingly jump into (assumed-to-be) cold water.  Anyway, he found the complete set of "irons", but the "woods" and bag had apparently drifted downstream.